Åland Islands: Discovering Finland's archipelago

Once Swedish, long ruled by Russia, now sort-of part of Finland, the Baltic-lapped Åland Islands play by their own rules – and remain one of Europe’s most intriguing outposts

9 mins

On a squally morning, as the restless Baltic swept past my cabin, I awoke in a state of hazy semi-consciousness, briefly having no idea where on earth I was. And the Åland Islands were not helping one bit.

The day before I’d cycled and sailed to Silverskär to assume the mantle of ‘Robinson Crusoe of the Baltics’; to be alone on my own tiny island. I’d wished ‘god dag’ to people who spoke Swedish and possessed names like Karlström and Björklund. Yet, as I woke fully, I remembered: I was in Finland. Well, kind of.

Several shades of grey surround the cultural identity of the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands, which in 2021 mark 100 years of being awarded autonomy within Finland. This archipelago of 6,757 islands – only 60 of which are inhabited – lies like rune stones scattered from a Viking’s pouch across the mid-Baltic, between Sweden’s east coast and Turku, on Finland’s western shore. For centuries the islands were occupied by the powerful Swedish kingdom but, after the Swedes lost the Finnish War to Russia in 1809, the Ålands were subsumed into the Russified Grand Duchy of Finland. This status quo remained until Finnish independence in 1918, which left the Swedes and Finns arguing over the Ålands. The League of Nations intervened and, in 1921, placed them under Finnish sovereignty – under the proviso that they remain militarily neutral and retain their Swedish language and traditions. No longer a geopolitical football, the Ålands then duly faded into obscurity. Intrigued, I travelled to the archipelago for four days of cycling, during which
I hoped to dig a little deeper into the Åländ identity.


The view towards the sea from the tower at Uffe Pa Berget near Godby, the second biggest built-up area in mainland Fasta Åland after Mariehamn (Alamy)

The view towards the sea from the tower at Uffe Pa Berget near Godby, the second biggest built-up area in mainland Fasta Åland after Mariehamn (Alamy)

The will of the people

I arrived by overnight ferry from Helsinki, easing past shadowy islets that promised disaster for careless mariners, to dock in capital Mariehamn, on Fasta, the largest island. There, the harbour sign read like a statement of defiance: ‘Welcome to Åland: Autonomous and Demilitarised’.

As rainclouds gathered momentum, I strolled about Mariehamn, founded in 1861 on the wealth of maritime shipping. A handsome row of linden trees fringed St Göran’s church, built in 1927 from the archipelago’s reddish-pink granite and the deep pockets of a shipping magnate. Nearby was a memorial to islander Gustaf Erikson, who, in the early 20th century, amassed the world’s largest merchant fishing fleet.

This maritime heritage is magnificently expressed by the presence of the colossal Glaswegian-built Pommern, the world’s only four-masted merchant barque preserved in its original state; almost the length of a football pitch, her main mast soars 50m. Pommern is now a museum, having been retired in 1939. Yet Åland remains the shipping powerhouse of Finland and a popular transit point for ferries between Sweden and Finland – particularly booze cruises taking advantage of the Ålands’ self-determined tax laws.

Before setting off to cycle north, I met Sara Limnell for lunch. She was arranging Åland100, a centenary celebration of 1922, the year autonomy became reality. So, I asked, are you Swedish or Finnish?

Johan Mörn shows the author around his wooden cabin – before leaving him to the glorious peace of Sviskär island (Mark Stratton)

Johan Mörn shows the author around his wooden cabin – before leaving him to the glorious peace of Sviskär island (Mark Stratton)

These discarded cannons reveal the structure’s ruin following the Crimean War (Mark Stratton)

These discarded cannons reveal the structure’s ruin following the Crimean War (Mark Stratton)

“Ah,” she smiled. “I identify as Åläning. I speak Swedish but also look towards Finland because my grandparents are from there. We enjoy aspects of both cultures although the Åläning spirit runs through us.” Part of that, she said, is wilfulness. “We have often fought alone for our status. Yet in some ways, I’m pleased we didn’t join Sweden as we may have ended up just another province. Under Finland we retain a unique identity.”

Peace & power

There was wilfulness to the weather that afternoon as I pedalled off on my seven-speed bike. The archipelago has one of Europe’s best cycling networks, with segregated lanes running alongside roads plus forest and lakeside paths crisscrossing the archipelago, all interconnected by local ferries. For much of the day I kept my head down, cycling in a rainstorm, staring down at roadside verges bright with purple harebells and scabious. I found shelter in mixed oak and pine woodland where rowan branches sagged with red berries. And I passed formidable cliffs of smooth pinkish granite, cattle pasture and apple orchards, and red wooden barns and houses, which became less frequent as I crossed onto the island of Sund.

I was 5km from meeting with Johan Mörn, when I fell out with my GPS. It went AWOL mid-forest and I got lost. Fortuitously, his aunt drove by and set me on the right track.
“Everybody knows each other here,” Johan explained when we finally met. An amicable bear of a man, Johan works for Silverskär, a company managing cabins on the eponymous island group – named after an ancient silver mine – and took me on his boat to their smallest island, 28-hectare Sviskär.

Here, hot coffee and cinnamon buns waited in a cosy wooden cabin set on a rocky shoreline patterned with custard-yellow lichen rings and juniper bushes. I had an outside loo with a view of the Baltic, and a sauna too. Johan lit my woodburner, deposited a basket of local foods including apple pie and tart physalis berries, and then left, calling out, “Don’t worry, there are no bears!”


The interior of the cabin in Sviskär (Mark Stratton)

The interior of the cabin in Sviskär (Mark Stratton)

It’s hard nowadays to experience inner peace through solitude but on Sviskär. I sweated in the sauna, read and ate by candlelight, listened to surging waves and fed logs into the crackling woodburner until I overheated. When Johan returned the next morning to take me back to Sund, I thought to hide in the forest so he couldn’t end my hegemony of all I surveyed. However, I had a date further south, in a historic landscape that I hoped would tell me more about Åland identity. Mizzle now prevailed as I ignored my GPS and diverted through pine forest to Finby, passing red windmills and midsummer maypoles. It was so quiet that I could hear the electric fences clicking like amplified metronomes.

Bomarsund is synonymous with both Russian ambition and vaingloriousness. It began with the building of Bomarsund’s immense fortress in 1832, driven by zealous foreign policy by Tsar Nicholas I. What remains today, on a defensive position overlooking Lumparn Bay, are the shattered remnants of the fort’s two-tiered walls. The pink granite facade is honeycombed, protecting a thicker interior of red bricks. This outer perimeter formed casemates (vaulted rooms) for cannons, part of a fortified circle 1,100m in diameter. The main battlements were to be supplemented by 12 defensive towers but the Russians only got around to constructing three; two of these, Notvik and Brännklint, remain a short distance away, both shaped like pink Globe theatres, pockmarked with infantry bullets and shattered by cannon fire. Outside the latter are discarded cannons embossed with the Imperial Russian double-headed eagle.

Bomersund tower (Mark Stratton)

Bomersund tower (Mark Stratton)

This fortification at the westernmost point of the Russian empire was wrecked in 1854 by an Anglo-French attack. “What had taken 22 years to build was destroyed in four days,” explained Graham Robins, the site’s Scottish archaeologist, who has lived in the Ålands since 1997. For all the Russian ambition and craftsmanship, the site was compromised by the delays in completing it. Bomarsund was a statement of power but poorly planned and indefensible.

Russia clung on to Åland until 1918, yet it puzzled me why in 1921 the archipelago was awarded to Finland, not Sweden. “Europe still feared communist Russia and saw Finland as a buffer,” said Graham. “Also, the Swedes remained neutral in the First World War, so the British and French didn’t feel inclined to give them anything. In the long run Ålanders got a great deal keeping their language and true autonomy.”

Island entrepreneurs

That afternoon I cycled on to a one-castle hamlet called Kastelholm. This Swedish military bastion fared far better than Bomarsund, unbowed since its construction began in the 1380s. The tall, towered walls are red granite, mortared by limewash to create a dappled appaloosa appearance. Its heyday was 1523-1611 during a period of Swedish might, under King Gustav Vasa.

Near the castle is a microdistillery, which infuses its gin with local botanicals like yarrow and tansy. Throughout my journey the Åläning frequently described themselves as entrepreneurial; some 2,700 businesses are registered across the archipelago – impressive for a population of just 30,000 people. Graham suggested the islanders learned the value of commerce during Russian occupation, encountering their traders. Almost every village seemed to have a little business or factory.

The next morning, as I crossed back on to Fasta and followed an old postal route that ran across the archipelago from the mid-17th century, I found another such venture. Stallhagen microbrewery was founded in 2004 by a group of beer enthusiasts. They offer an interesting tour, particularly a room where I tested my olfactory senses on exotic hops and malts from around the world. For their chocolatey Baltic dark porter, the brewer smokes the malts himself, infusing birch and alder.

My guide, Johanna Dahlgrén, told me they’d been busy this summer with lots of visitors from Finland. Hold on, I objected, you are Finnish. “Well, we’ve been caught for centuries between Swedes and Russians,” she said. “Finland is just another boss in town. We get the best of both worlds.”

I asked what these nation-defining qualities were, expecting a philosophical musing. “Well, the Finns like light-roasted coffee and drier beers, and Swedes the opposite.”

She asked if I’d like to sample Stallhagen’s original pale lager. Conceding that the pope is indeed Catholic, I agreed. The label featured the Åland flag, thus drinking it felt like an act of solidarity with Åläning patriotism… and, well, I wasn’t cycling much further that day.

The Stallhagen brewery truck (Mark Stratton)

The Stallhagen brewery truck (Mark Stratton)

Later, near Mariehamn, I reached a small start-up in a cucumber factory, Open Water microbrewery, which produces cider and ales. Throughout my trip I’d seen prodigious quantities of apple trees and wondered where the fruit went. “Åland produces 80% of Finland’s apples,” said the youthful owner, Jonas Jakobsson, who embodies Åland entrepreneurialism. He has a nine-to-five job but back in 2017, after enjoying a friend’s homebrew, he had an inkling of an idea. “I thought we could make better beer, but I had to raise €120,000 from the bank, on a hunch,” he said.

Many islanders I spoke with emphasised they felt Åläning, but Jonas firmly asserted his Finnishness. “This is our government and has been for 100 years. I feel Finnish and would rather belong with them because they’re better organised. Just look at how they handled COVID-19 compared to Sweden.”

The sea, the sea

Identity aside, something uniting all Ålanders is a historic communion with the sea. Over time, the Baltic has brought them trade, wealth and invaders. It was my time to hit the water.
To do that, I headed south-east of Mariehamn, to met Ville Holmberg, 51-year-old former police officer and a man of the sea. He waited for me with his boat, Lisa-Marie. He’s a big fan of Elvis. “I’ve got another boat called Priscilla,” he said.

“Our existence is rooted to the sea,” Ville explained. “I had my first boat aged four.” We threaded our way through a shallow channel of bare-rock islets, a treacherous navigation; indeed, on a nearby island is a memorial to the Plus, the three-masted barque that sank here in 1933.

“It was a stormy night with poor visibility, so the captain radioed for help to reach Mariehamn. But at that moment the pilot was occupied with another ship. The captain sailed on but gouged a hole in the hull and sank immediately. Twelve people were lost, four others swam to shore,” Ville recounted.

The Lisa-Marie, named by a local Elvis Presley fan after The King’s daughter (Mark Stratton)

The Lisa-Marie, named by a local Elvis Presley fan after The King’s daughter (Mark Stratton)

Built in 1903, the Pommern managed to survive two world wars and twice-win the Australia-England Great Grain Race. It now rests in the Mariehamn docks as a museum ship (Shutterstock)

Built in 1903, the Pommern managed to survive two world wars and twice-win the Australia-England Great Grain Race. It now rests in the Mariehamn docks as a museum ship (Shutterstock)

All pilot stations and lighthouses are automated these days, including that on Kobba Klintar, where the Plus had radioed for assistance. We moored there and Ville produced the key to the disused pilot’s house, a creaking wooden green-and-cream-painted structure. On the top floor was a foghorn the size of Apollo 11, and far-reaching views. The sun blazed brightly, the scattered islands silhouetted in mercury.

Ville told me he is proud to be part of Finland. “It’s not just about language. I feel Finland has moral leadership not just political and they have served the Ålands well.” And then he added, “Would you like to see my island?”

We sailed further south to Nyhamklubben, Ville’s own little paradise. “Most islands are owned privately. I bought this for €70,000 and my wife and I built a summerhouse.”
Located beyond a ghostly-white grove of birch, the wooden summerhouse was perched on rounded pink granite with views out to sea. Travel writers often harp on about ‘discovering’ Nordic hygge. That is temporary. Ville lives it.

I wasn’t in a hurry to leave his island, or the Ålands. Politics aside, the sea, history and environment have fashioned an evocative identity on one of Europe’s least-known outposts. “When you have your own island,” Ville said, as he led me (reluctantly) back to Lisa-Marie, “you have your own world.”

Related Articles